The Origin of the Templars according to Jacques de Vitry ca 1220

Jacques de Vitry (Jacobus de Vitriaco, c. 1160/70 – 1 May 1240), probably born at Reims, was a noted theologian and chronicler of his era. He wrote one of earliest and most detailed accounts on the origin and early years of the Knights Templar. What were his views on this Order?

He studied at the University of Paris, becoming a canon regular in 1210 at the Priory of Saint-Nicolas d'Oignies in the Diocese of Liège, a post he maintained until his consecration as bishop in 1216. From 1211 to 1213 he preached the Albigensian Crusade, touring France and Germany with William, the archdeacon of Paris, and recruiting many Crusaders. 

In 1214 Jacques was elected Bishop of Acre. He received episcopal consecration and arrived at his see in 1216. He was subsequently heavily involved in the Fifth Crusade, participating in the siege of Damietta from 1218 to 1220. In 1219 he began to write the Historia Hierosolymitana, a history of the Holy Land from the advent of Islam until the crusades of his own day, but only two parts were completed. He returned to Europe in 1225.

Between 16 April and 29 July 1229, Pope Gregory IX elevated Jacques to the College of Cardinals and transferred him to the suburbicarian see of Frascati. With the exception of a short legation to Emperor Frederick II in 1232, he spent his last years working in the papal court. He subscribed the papal bulls between 29 July 1229 and 23 June 1239. He died at Rome as Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals. His remains were transferred to Oignies and buried there in 1241.

His Historia Orientalis (also known as Historia Hierosolymitana, the History of Jerusalem) is an important source for the historiography of the Crusades. In this Historia De Vitry describes in great detail, and with clear reverance, the origin, development and early ways of the Knights Templar. 

LXV. Now, after this, seeing that as time went on people from all parts of the world, both rich and poor, young men and maidens, old men and children, went to Jerusalem to visit the holy places. Certain thieves, footpads, and highway robbers used to lay ambushes for careless pilgrims, plundered many of them, and slew some of them. Now, certain devout Knights, beloved by God, out of their fervent charity renounced the world, made themselves bondslaves of Christ, and by a solemn profession and vow bound themselves to defend pilgrims from the aforesaid robbers, and keep guard over the public roads, living, like Canons Regular, in poverty, chastity, and obedience, as soldiers of the King of kings.

Their chiefs were those venerable men, beloved by God, Hugh de Payens and Geoffrey de St. Omer. Only nine at first undertook this holy project. They did service for nine years, wearing secular habits, such as the faithful gave them out of charity. But the King and his Knights, having compassion on the aforesaid noblemen, who had given up all for Christ's sake, and together with the Lord Patriarch, supported them out of their own private means, and afterwards bestowed upon them gifts and grants for the benefit of their own souls. And, since they had not as yet any church of their own, or any fixed abode, our Lord the King allowed them to lodge for a time in a part of his palace near the Lord's Temple. The Abbot and Canons of the Lord's Temple gave them an open space which they had near the King's palace to use for offices. As they dwelt near the Lord's Temple, they were afterwards caJled Vrethren of the Knights Templars. 

Now, after they had passed nine years in this profession and holy poverty, living their lives in common in holy poverty', and had dwelt in concord and of one mind in the house, in the year of grace 1128, by the mandate of our Lord Pope Honorius and of the Lord Stephen, Patriarch of Jerusalem, they were given a rule and a white habit, without any cross. This was done in a General Council held at Troyes in Champagne, under the presidency of the Lord Bishop of Alba, the Legate of the Holy See, in the presence of the Archbishops of Rheims and Sens, the Abbots of the Cistercian Order, and many other prelates of churches.

After this, in the time of our Lord Pope Eugenius (1145-1153, TN), they attached red crosses to the outside of their garments, while they wore white as a symbol of innocency. By the red crosses they alluded to martyrdom, because, according to the terms of their rule, they were bound to shed their own blood in defence of the Holy Land, and manfully overthrow the enemies of the Cross of Christ, and drive them away from the borders of Christendom.

At their leader's command they were to join battle, not rashly or disorderly, but wisely and with all caution, being the first to attack and the last to retreat. They were not allowed to turn their backs and flee, nor to retreat without orders. Wherefore, seeing that they were stout and brave soldiers of Christ, like a second race of Maccabees, who did not presume upon their own strength, but whose whole hope was in the power of God, and all their trust in the Cross of Jesus Christ, they exposed to death for Christ's sake their bodies, which were right dear in the sight of the Lord. And the Lord fought with them and fought for them.

Thus they became so terrible to the enemies of Christ's faith that one of them used to chase a thousand, and two of them ten thousand. When they were called to arms, they did not ask how many of the enemy there were, but where they were. They were lions in war, and gentle as lambs at home. In the field they were fierce soldiers, in church they were like hermits or monks. They were harsh and savage to the enemies of Christ, but kindly and gracious to Christians.

They had a black and white banner, which they called Bauceant, borne before them, signifying that they are fair and kindly to their friends, but black and terrible to their enemies.

Now, seeing that religious zeal cannot be kept up without strict discipline, these wise and devout men from the beginning safeguarded themselves and provided for the good government of their successors by determining in nowise to disregard or to leave un- punished the negligences and trespasses of their delinquent brethren, but they weighed carefully and exactly measured the heinousness of the crime and the circumstances of the sinner. From some they took away their red cross, and cast them out for ever, lest one scabby goat should infect the whole flock of sheep. Others they condemned to eat scanty meals on the floor without table-linen, until they had made due atonement for their faults, that by this public disgrace they might be made to blush, and the rest to fear. For their greater confusion and penance they were not suff'ered to drive away the dogs that ate with them.

Others they used to chain and imprison either for a time or for life, according as they thought fit, that they might set them free from the prison of hell. And in many other ways, according to the precepts of their wholesome rules, they constrained such as were rebellious and stiffnecked to walk in the ways of regular discipline and honourable conversation.

They showed due obedience and humble reverence to the Lord Patriarch of Jerusalem, to whom they owed the establishment of their Order and their sub- sistence in things temporal, rendering tithes and other things that are God's unto God, and unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. They were not burdensome to any man, but were beloved by all because of their piety and humility. Thus it came to pass that the renown of their glory and the fame of their holiness was spread over the whole world like a pot of frankincense of a sweet-smelling savour. Their fragrance filled all the house of Holy Church, and their memory was sweet as honey in the mouths of all the faithful. Their courage, their battles, and glorious victories over the enemies of Christ, shall be told in all churches of the saints.

Knights from all parts of the world — not only poor ones, but Dukes and Princes — following their example, broke their worldly chains, renounced all for Christ's sake, and flocked to them, desiring to belong to their Order of religion. They utterly renounced the pomps and vanities of this world and all the delights of the flesh, and held them as mere dirt, but under Divine inspiration most devoutly embraced the service of Christ and the lowliness of monks. Wherefore in a short time their numbers increased so much that they had in their convent more than three hundred Knights, all wearing white mantles, without counting serving-men, who were numberless.

They have been prodigiously increased by vast possessions both on this side of and beyond the sea, for they own villages, cities and towns, after the manner of the Brethren of St. John's Hospital, from which they send a certain sum every year for the defence of the Holy Land to their Grand Master, whose chief seat was in Jerusalem. In like manner, the bursars of the houses of the Order of St. John's Hospital, whom they call preceptors, send every year a certain sum to their Grand Master. For the brethren of the aforesaid hospital, in imitation of the Knights Templars, use the arms of the flesh, and have received Knights, with their esquires, into their body, that it might be brought to pass which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet about the rise and position of the Church that was to be: ' I will make thee an eternal excellency, a joy of many generations'. And again, 'The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the panther shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion and the sheep shall dwell together.'

Introduction from Wikipedia. Source translation Jacques de Vitry's History of Jerusalem, Palestone Pilgrims'Text Society, 1896, as can be found at; A Latin facsimile from 1596 can be found here. Illustration Seal of Jacques de Vitry Bishop of Acre, source Wikipedia.

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